The Edible Balcony

I might never have attempted urban gardening if it hadn’t been for a book called The Edible Balcony by Alex Mitchell. In the interest of full disclosure, I used to work for Rodale, the book’s publisher, but that’s not why I’m writing about it now. The author, a gardening writer in London, paints a seductive picture of transforming a bare balcony into “a Mediterranean-style haven surrounded by grapes, tomatoes, lemons, and greens so fresh that they squeak while the traffic roars around you.” The gorgeous photos underscore the possibilities, with scarlet runner-bean tunnels, bee hives, espaliered apple trees, and more—all set up in tiny spaces.

Mitchell has a delightfully quirky sense of how to create a container garden, with pots fashioned from fruit crates, coffee tins, ceramic cookware, and even colanders. In addition to delivering a trove of basic how-to information, she seems to have no end of clever ideas on utilizing every precious inch. She stacks pots artfully on step ladders or builds vertical gardens on walls using hanging shoe organizers. But my favorite suggestion features creative deployment of a hat rack. “Not only can you hang baskets or other containers filled with strawberries, tomatoes, greens, or herbs from the hooks,” she writes, “but the central stem is perfect for supporting climbing beans or cucumbers—and all in the space it takes to hang your sun hat.” (Just be sure to set it up in an area that’s not too windy, and brace it, if necessary, with heavy stones at the base.)

When I first began reading The Edible Balcony in early May, I thought that, for all its charm, the book didn’t apply to me. I don’t even have a balcony, just a fire escape—and the cops frown on placing anything on the fire escape that might interfere with its intended purpose.

Anne’s butterfly bush–with its first visitor, a Red Admiral butterfly

Once Mitchell opened my eyes, however, I realized that I have quite a lot of room for container gardening. I have railings on both sides of the stoop—one of which I have since adorned with a planter full of basil, parsley, rosemary, and dill, and the other with Swiss chard and cherry tomatoes. I have the surface of the stoop and six stairs where I have now placed my purslane, mandevilla, and lavender. And there are more railings in front of the house, circling the entrance to the dry cleaner that occupies the space below us. Last week I hung a pot of pink, purple, and burgundy petunias on this railing, prompting the Korean cleaner to run out and thank me for the gift. My little flower garden of snapdragons and vincas around the tree out front is filling in nicely. I even have a butterfly bush on another little patch of concrete around the side of the house—and within two hours of its arrival, it had attracted its first Red Admiral butterfly.

I may not have an edible balcony, but thanks to Mitchell, I now have an edible stoop—and for someone who’s yearned for a garden for nearly 20 years, that’s nothing short of stupendous.

Related link: Lack a Balcony? Get One Delivered

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